Archives for the month of: July, 2022

Behold the Genealogy of the Qing Dynasty: 1-meter thick, and weighing in at more than 150 kilograms. Notice of this sizer, from the collection of First Historical Archives of China, comes from a tweet by Tong Bingxue. It looks like the paper’s quite thick, so it may not be the longest page count book. Generous margins. And an early paperback, please note.

But now feast your eyes on Patria Amada, a compilation of the Brazilian tax code by Vinícios Leôncio.

Our source (via Nate Hoffelder’s weekly links) Lowering the Bar doesn’t reveal how tall the author is, but they do say the book weighs more than seven tons and has the familiar trim size of 8½ x 11 — but feet, not inches. What would possess you to invest your savings on an unusable “book” like this? And how do you print it? Looks like a metal post binding. Opening the volume might however endanger your life.

For a previous entry in the largest book stakes please see The Monster of Szinpetri, which also contains a link to the possibly relevant “Miniature books”.

The Psalter as it was found in a County Tipperary bog. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

The Guardian has a story about the preservation of a 1,200-year-old book recovered from a peat bog in Ireland in 2006. (Link via Nate Hoffelder.) The Faddan More Psalter, estimated to have been written about 800AD, is on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, and the Museum has published a book documenting the rescue and conservation process. With all archaeological research the fundamental problem is the Schrödinger’s cat issue that by examining the evidence you destroy the evidence — so your techniques had better be the right ones. Hence the important function of excavation reports in archaeology, and of knowledge sharing in conservation.

The conservators tried freeze-drying, vacuum-sealing, and drying with blotting paper, before going for a dewatering method using a vacuum chamber, in which the leathern lump sat for two years to minimize shrinkage and decay, before it was possible to start trying to pry the pages apart.

Photograph: Valerie Dowling/National Museum of Ireland

The manuscript, who’s binding includes papyrus, hinting at international trade, was a soggy mass when recovered. The process of preservation took five years, and resulted in some instances in the ink which forms the letters breaking free of the now decayed leather, turning the project into a bit of a jig-saw puzzle. Obviously a case for the technology described in How to read a book without opening it.

By chance I happened to follow up my recent reading of The Sun Also Rises with The Plumed Serpent. The Sun Also Rises is of course largely about bullfighting and The Plumed Serpent starts off with a bullfight.

D. H. Lawrence is an author I have already claimed to want to punch on the nose — and The Plumed Serpent only increases my impatience with the guy — but I have to prefer his attitude towards bullfighting to that of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s stance of “aficion” (think of aficionado) for the killing of bulls and maiming (and killing) of horses is rather like someone giving us an appreciation of the different elegant ways of bankrupting a friend, or promoting an aesthetic of torture.* I wouldn’t wish to punch Hemingway though — do I fear that the big guy would fight back too effectively? — but he does inspire the same sort of annoyance that one used to feel with those public school rugger-buggers who featured all too prominently in the Cambridge pubs back in my day. They projected an air of always thinking themselves right, because entitled always to be right. (OK. I have to admit I was one of them too. But I swear I was often censorious.) To his credit, Lawrence is appalled by the spectacle, especially the picadors’ disemboweled horses.

The Sun Also Rises is counted as a masterpiece — OK, I guess a masterpiece is finally what people say is a masterpiece. A bunch or hard-drinking friends go to Pamplona for the running of the bulls (much technicalia about this sort of stuff) and our damaged hero of few words ends up having to go to Madrid to rescue the insufferable Lady Brett Ashley from her entanglement with the young toreador — who should have known better. Unexpected book, with its hard drinking and casual sex, to see on high school reading lists, surely? The best we can say for The Plumed Serpent is that it’s an odd production. Is it fascistic homoeroticism as primitive religion, or primitive religion as fascistic homoeroticism? Does it matter? That the author was clearly serious in his intent just makes one even sorrier. You can see the warming-up for Lady Chatterley’s Lover under way. Is it worth noting that the only places where the writing sparkles is when Bert starts describing flowers?

Lit crit isn’t this blog’s bag of course: so on to the physical aspects. The volumes in which I read these works are both handsome and sturdy hardbacks. The Hemingway is in the first volume of his oeuvre in the Library of America, while the Lawrence is a volume in “The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence”. We started manufacturing this series in America, printing the early volumes on Mohawk Superfine (probably 60#) at the late lamented Vail-Ballou Press in Binghamton, New York. The books were Smyth sewn with Multicolor ends in a stout bright red buckram cloth over heavy boards. After a few years the manufacturing of the series was transferred to England — no doubt as a result of exchange rate movement as often determined the location of manufacture — and the University Press in Cambridge, who had always done the typesetting (in Ehrhardt),sending repros over to America, took over the printing and binding too. They did a good job of matching the US specifications — the quality of materials was always better over here — though as was typical with UK books of that era (the 1970s and 80s) there were no headbands.

One noticeable difference is the paper on which the jacket is printed, a similar C1S offset sheet (coated one side) — the UK jackets have turned brown even on the flaps which of course have been protected all these years by being enclosed inside the book and living on a sheltered shelf. Obviously the base sheet to which the coating was applied was much more acidic in England than the standard sheet used for jackets in America.


* Yes, I did read Death in the Afternoon several years ago, and can see that there is a sort of beauty in the actions of a good matador, but it cannot avoid the fatal immorality of beauty in the service of death. The matador is a bit like a ballet dancer, but we don’t expect animal sacrifice to be part of the dance. No matter how lovely your knife work, a murder is still a murder.

It may not be publishing’s biggest problem, but it’s certainly one of the top ones — and one we could ourselves cure, if only we had the will. We insist on being willing to take back books we have “sold”, giving full credit for them. What this means is that you never really know what the sales of a book are: they may all be out there in bookshops — but nobody knows how many, and when, they’ll start turning up at the warehouse with a request for a refund. But we are apparently hooked on returns. Returns are crazy. Returns of POD books are crazier. And returns of ebooks are beyond crazy.

NPR has a story about authors protesting Amazon’s returns policy on ebooks, which allows you seven days to cancel a purchase made in error. Now of course seven days is more than enough to read almost any book, so if you are a ruthless reading addict, you can avoid ever paying for a book. If the book’s too long, I wonder if, having bought it “in error” one week, you can buy the same book “in error” a week or so later after having gotten credit for the first purchase — and so on until you’ve managed to finish the tome, when you finally return it for the ultimate credit. That this should be an option is nuts. Obviously Amazon, maniacally customer-friendly, want to encourage you to buy that pair of shoes, confident in the knowledge that if they don’t fit, you can return them for full credit, no questions asked. This quite rational policy just gets extended to all products, and bingo, books are priceless.

With ebooks of course there’s no physical object being swapped back and forth — all the reader is getting is access to a file, then giving up that access when their money is refunded. So the publisher isn’t losing anything more than the tiny electronic cost of doing these transactions. The author though, having gotten a royalty credited to their account when the ebook was first “sold”, has to watch that royalty being clawed back from their account.* This looks a lot more like losing something real! Of course both parties have immediately lost another potential customer. Assuming there’s a finite number of people who might ever buy a particular book, if lots of them are able to read it for free, that represents significant damage to the ultimate earnings of author and publisher.

I think it’s obvious that seven days is far too long to allow a customer to decide to return a product for credit. Maybe if it’s a pair of pants it’s understandable that they need to be delivered and tried on before you know whether they fit or not. I do know people who have bought an item of clothing, worn it to a party, and then returned it for credit the next day. Even this, although utterly immoral, is not quite as ludicrous as “buying” an ebook, reading it, and rerunning it for full credit.


* OK, OK; there can’t be many authors who have real-time access to their royalty statement.

Now that I have to devote my mornings to Phil Liggett and Bob Roll on the Tour de France 2022, I fear I must suspend my posting for the duration. See you late July.

I you have not yet watched this show on television I recommend it heartily: it’s like a beautiful travelogue interspersed with excitement involving half a dozen different athletic contests.

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, Comprehending the most Important Concerns of Private Life and Particularly Showing the Distresses that may Attend the Misconduct both of Parents and Children in Relation to Marriage (Letter 261, about ⅔ of the way through)

At Ambient Literature Ian Gadd gives us a piece on The Printer’s Eye which examines Richardson’s innovative typesetting. He also shows the ebook version of such typographical play: about which one can say is at least a brave effort. His piece includes the invaluable information that because Penguin’s edition is such an immensity of oversize production, Ryanair once tried to prevent a student from taking the book onto one of their flights because they considered it to be a piece of hand baggage.

This part of Clarissa, designed to indicate Clarissa’s distress upon her “betrayal”, as well as being disjointedly written, is a sort of content mash-up of various quotations. It is contained as Paper X, an enclosure in Letter 261. Supposedly these “Papers” represent transcriptions of discarded scraps of paper torn up and thrown away by the distraught Clarissa. Paper X starts with four lines from Thomas Otway, Venice Preserved (Act 4, scene 2). Ms Harlowe’s quotations continue as follows

  • Lead me: Otway: Venice Preserved IV
  • Death only: Dryden & Lee Oedipus III
  • Oh! You have: Shakespeare Hamlet III
  • Then down: Cowley The Mistress
  • Oh my Miss Howe! The pangs: Otway Venice Preserved IV
  • When honours lost: Garth The Dispensary
  • I could a Tale: Shakespeare Hamlet I
  • For life can: Dryden Absalom and Architaphel

“By swift misfortunes”, vertically at the bottom left, appears to be Miss Harlowe herself. Why in her distress does she break into verse? Mr Lovelace, her suitor/rapist, is worried about her survival, and sees it as a good sign that she’s able to remember and quote all this verse so well! The conceit of course is of her writing at random in any open space on the paper, almost like a crossed letter.

In an offset world we might think it not altogether complicated to achieve a disrupted lineation like this: paste-up makes it a relative breeze. But in hot metal it would be quite an effort. Remember that all white space had to be established by bits of metal of less than type height so that the actual type could be held firm and in position to pick up the ink. Upside-down diagonal lines like the “I could a Tale tell” from Hamlet, would involve custom-cut metal (or maybe wood) all around, because most such spacer pieces were line-based thus strictly rectangular. See some big (shiny and linear) spaces here:

The classic instance of this sort of typographical frivolity is of course Tristram Shandy. Full of digressions it also displays typographical quirks — dashes of varying length, upto a full line, line diagrams showing narrative structure, an entire chapter which has been ripped out, blank pages, and famously a pair of marbled pages, which nowadays just get printed in black. In the first edition these marbled pages were different in every copy: they were genuinely marbled, and were tipped in after having the page numbers stamped on.

125 books about Brooklyn may seem a bit excessive, but clearly the temptation was too great for the Brooklyn Public Library, who, in celebrating their 125th anniversary, have compiled just such a list.

Don’t want such a narrow geographical focus? Here’s the New York Times with “The 25 most significant New York City novels from the last 100 years“. This is an immensely long piece, so here are the 25 titles:

No Henry James? No Edith Wharton? Anyway I fear I have a bit of reading before me. Do we now look for the Queens Public Library system to pick up the gauntlet? It was founded in 1907.